TRIPOLI, Dec 10, 2015:
When young Moroccan Rachid paid US$1,500 (RM6,570) to cross the Mediterranean to Europe, he never thought he would end up instead in a Libyan detention centre.
Just before the 25-year-old was set to leave Libya, local authorities carried out a raid in Garabulli, about 60km from Tripoli, detaining two smugglers and some 100 migrants including him.
They were driven to a detention centre in the Libyan capital without any money, or their telephones or passports, which were confiscated by the smugglers.
Rachid had hoped for a bright future in Europe, but instead he joined thousands of other migrants detained in a country wracked by chaos since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in its 2011 revolution.
Libya has for years been a stepping stone for migrants seeking to reach Europe, but smugglers have stepped up their lucrative business as two rival administrations and militias battle for control of the oil-rich country.
European and African nations are to meet from Wednesday in Malta to tackle the continent’s biggest movement of people since World War II.
Rachid recounted his story at a detention centre in Tripoli, dressed in a long grey robe and mismatched blue and green flip-flops.
After he travelled through Tunisia to Libya, smugglers kept him for a week in a house near the capital, where the administration rival to Libya’s internationally recognised government is based.
“I paid them 2,000 Libyan dinars,” he said. “I slept on the floor with hundreds of other migrants and we had nothing to eat.”
Rachid said he hesitated before boarding the boat to Europe.
“On his smartphone, the smuggler showed us a picture of the boat we were going to get on, and I could see it was really small,” he said.
He asked for his money back but the smuggler refused.
“I was scared of losing it all so I decided to go anyway,” the young Moroccan said.
“But on the night we were supposed to leave, we were detained.”
Thirty-year-old Ayoub, also Moroccan, was detained at the same time as Rachid.
The father-of-four had desperately wanted to reach Italy.
“Either I will get to Italy where I can live a dignified life, or I’ll die trying,” he said. “It’s in God’s hands.”
Some 5,000 people – mostly from Syria,Iraq, Sudan or the Horn of Africa – are detained in and around the Libyan capital.
Some pay experienced and organised smugglers to travel thousands of kilometres to Tripoli’s beaches.
Captain Osama Mohamad el-Shibli is an investigator with the Tripoli administration’s authority in charge of combating illegal migration.
“From their countries in Africa, they head to Sudan then to the Libyan town of Sebha, some 800km from Tripoli, and to the coast,” said the official, whose unit detained Ayoub, Rachid and their companions two weeks ago.
“Along the coast, migrants are gathered in low-key locations before being sent out in groups to the boats.”
The smugglers are often armed – with handguns, Kalashnikovs and grenades – and do not hesitate to open fire on security forces, he said.
Lieutenant Abdelnasser Hazzam, a colleague at the same authority, said that the traffickers are Libyans and of other African nationalities.
They are part of “networks with sophisticated coordination” that make huge sums in this illegal business, he said.
The boats do not leave Libyan shores if they are not overflowing with people, and often carry double or triple the maximum number of allowed passengers on board.
The smugglers can make up to US$1 million (RM4.36 million) from 400 migrants, he said.
But the authority struggles to carry out its mission with very limited means.
As the Tripoli administration is not recognised by the international community, no country will cooperate with them.
“We work with five cars,” said Shibli.
They also have a 24-passenger minibus, which often has to make several trips to carry migrants between raid locations and detention centres.
They used to have an ambulance, but it broke down after smugglers shot at it during a raid.
At sea, the authority fares even worse.
It only has two small speedboats to patrol the waters off Tripoli’s coast and, if needed, rescue migrants at sea or recover their bodies.
Each boat can only carry 15 people at a time.
“It’s only thanks to God that we save lives,” said Mabruk Salem el-Tarhuni, a coastguard at the Tripoli port.